Visual novels are a fun medium for bringing stories to life that combine game mechanics, written stories, and visuals into one package. They’re not too hard to make on a technical level, and are a great way to get your voice out there. But it can be daunting to figure out how to make visual novels when you first start out. Let’s go over some basics first.
Update 2020: Added some new links for resources.
Update 2019: Tweaked this some here and there to update it for 2019. Hope you enjoy!
Get Familiar With: Your Terms
So, you want to make a visual novel. Here’s a list of terms to know if you’re new to the VN community like I was when I started developing:
EVN / OELVN – stands for English Visual Novel and Original English Language Visual Novel. Two terms used for describing Western VNs that are made in English, although EVN is used more frequently nowadays. JVN likewise means Japanese Visual Novel.
Kinetic novel – a visual novel that’s linear with few or no choices. Has only one ending.
Sprite – the individual character art that changes expressions and can move around the screen.
CGs – although it typically stands for Computer Generated, CGs in visual novels typically means the cut scene art where no sprites are shown. CGs are usually reserved for special scenes and are the type of artwork you’d see in a CG Gallery.
UI / GUI – the User Interface / Graphical User Interface. This is what the player interacts with such as the textbox, main menu, save / load screen, settings, and more.
Otome / Otoge – roughly translates to “maiden’s love” and is used to describe games with a female demographic, usually dating sims which feature male love interests and a female protagonist.
Nakige – a crying game, i.e. a game that is meant to make you cry. Do not get this confused with nukige for reasons listed below.
Eroge – an erotic game. If a game has sex scenes in it, it’s an eroge. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a nukige.
Nukige – a hentai or eroge, but one meant solely for showing off sex scenes, i.e. a porn game. If you take out the sex scenes in a game and nothing makes sense, it’s probably a nukige.
Kamige – a term used jokingly that literally means “God-game”. It’s used to describe games that top-tier and virtually perfect.
(when something ends with -ge, it’s typically partially off of Japanese words, as the -ge stands for “game” [“geimu”])
Get Familiar With: Your Engines
With any game development, you have different engines at your disposal- some free, some more expensive, some good, some bad. When making visual novels, there are several engines to chose from with varying degrees of popularity and features. I have personally only used Ren’Py, Twine, and CloudNovel.
Your main EVN-making engine. It’s highly used, and for good reason: it’s free, it’s constantly updated, it has a very active community and lots of (somewhat old, somewhat helpful) documentation. It’s the one I personally use and recommend as I feel it’s easy to learn while also allowing the user a lot of room for customization.
Naninovel is different from the other entries on this list in that it’s not a standalone engine but rather a plugin for Unity. While it has a $150 price tag, the plugin is frequently updated with great support from Elringus. If you’ve used Unity before or want to make use of some features Unity has (namely gameplay features), then check Naninovel out.
This engine is newer and as such it comes with bugs and some issues. It’s from Degica, the same publishers as the RPG Maker series- because of this, you can use RPGM assets in VNM. VNM is $60, but is typically on sale and comes with a lot of stock assets from backgrounds to sprites to music. It uses a drag and drop system and some way to code as well. While I don’t have personal experience with it, I have heard that it still has bugs in it and they aren’t the fastest at answering emails- as always, try to figure out what you’re looking for in an engine before committing to one.
Another EVN-developing engine- it’s used by some developers with varying degrees of reviews. Some people think the engine works fine, others have used it and would rather use Ren’Py. There are a good amount of differences between the two, the main being that Ren’Py will always be free and TyranoBuilder costs $15. This is a GUI-based software online, so it can be quicker for those who can’t script. Take a look at reviews before purchasing.
Want to make a simple visual novel but don’t care about complicated things like save states or settings? Twine is for you. It’s simple to use but can create amazing stories. Alternatively, you can also use it for planning stories or doing outlines on it. Twine can be used in browser or can be downloaded.
This list is of the major visual novel engines out there, but there are certainly more engines that can be used to make visual novels such as RPG Maker, Unity (namely Naninovel plugin), GameMaker, and more. When picking an engine, try to figure out what you need- are you just trying to get practice and want to hit the ground running? If so, then something like Twine might work. Do you want some custom assets but want premade things such as backgrounds and such and are willing to pay some money to get a lot of premade assets? Then VN Maker might be for you. Want an engine that’s constantly being updated with a big community? Ren’Py is a good choice.
Get Familiar With: Your Assets
Alrighty, so you got an engine downloaded and you have an idea for a killer story that’s going to be the next kamige. …Now what? Well, let’s start by going over assets you’ll need to make the visual novel.
- Character Sprites – every character is going to need a talking sprite so we can see what they look like, unless you’re going for a chat room-like system. Sprites have multiple expressions- I typically make a default set of 8 expressions per sprite (4 talking, 4 non-talking), but I have seen some EVNs use upwards of 50+ expressions per sprite (aka per character).
- Backgrounds – where does your game take place? Surely it’s not set in some dark void for the whole game. Show us where the VN is set! Some EVNs can make do with only a handful, but as a rule of thumb any more than 40 backgrounds is pushing it, even for a 10+ hour long VN.
- Story – every VN needs a good story. Some EVNs have only 1,000 words while others have upwards of 100,000. Just don’t try to overstay your welcome.
- Programming – the VN must come together somehow! Someone has got to put all the above together.
- Music – the background soundtrack that you hear.
- CGs – some VNs are entirely sprites or entirely CGs- it all depends on your vision.
- Sound effects – sounds you might hear such as a door creaking, a cellphone ringing, etc.
- GUI – Graphical User Interface is everything the player interacts with and a few tweaks can vastly improve the look of a VN.
- Voice acting – voices for the characters.
For any type of development you want to focus on making a minimum viable product, i.e. the smallest working prototype of your game that you can as fast as you can, and then refine and polish that by adding in extra details like fixing art, adding sound effects, reworking parts, and more.
Get Familiar With: Your Websites
But wait you say, I can do none of those things, I’m just an idea guy! If that’s the case, then you have 3 choices: find people willing to work for free, pay people, or learn how to do something. If you decide to go the route of forming a team, then your best option is to go to the Lemma Soft Forums (LSF), the main EVN forums on the web. There you can recruit members to your amazing brand new team, see other VNs in development, and even post about your own. I’ll make another editorial soon about ways to establish a development team and keep the ball rolling.
Aside from LSF, the other main EVN website is Fuwanovel. It has a much smaller community, but is still a website dedicated to visual novels nonetheless. There are also several subreddits for visual novels and otome games.
Now in 2020, a lot of VN devs have moved to Discord. The largest VN dev community outside Ren’Py is Devtalk, a community I help run.
Get Familiar With: Structure
Visual novels come in all sorts and sizes. Some are linear (kinetic) novels with hundreds of thousands of words, some are short, winding experiences with choices at every corner. The structure of the visual novel should match what you’re trying to express with the story. If you want an emphasis on player control, then having choices dictate the ending would be a good way to go. If you want to tell a story with several what-if scenarios depending on who the player spends time with, then a dating sim is a good idea.
Outlining should be your first step after figuring out what kind of story you want to tell- after all, it’s the foundation of the story. Different writers & designers go about outlining in different ways. I’m a fan of writing things out in notebooks and post-it notes, but this isn’t the best way for teams. Google Docs is a good way to write up outlines to share with team members as it allows for commenting. Some teams use Twine for outlining since it allows an easy overview of branching narratives.
Once your outline is done, it’s time for the first draft. Some people write directly into Ren’Py, others write in writing software like Scrivener. If you’re working with a team or will have someone edit your writing, please don’t write directly into Ren’Py- it makes collaboration difficult. You can see a list of writing software on the VN resources page. Personally, I use Google Docs for my own writing and for team projects as it makes sharing and editing easy.
Get Familiar With: Marketing
A lot of indie devs treat “marketing” as a scary word, one we shouldn’t utter. Don’t be afraid of marketing! Marketing should come naturally, as it encompasses the project from beginning to end. Deciding on a name, amount of love interests, aesthetics, etc. are all a part of marketing just like tweeting about the game is marketing.
Get Familiar With: Publishing
Great, you’ve finished your game in record time. You’re ready to show it to the world after weeks of rewriting, debugging, getting feedback from playtesters, and more. …Or you’ve just finished the last line of code and you’re ready to shove it out the door. Either works.
I won’t get into too many details on publishing to say, Steam, as that’s a whole other beast, but I will talk about your options as a broke EVN developer. You could always upload it to Google Drive or somewhere, make a blog post or a thread in the Completed Games section on LSF, and link it there to be done with it. Or, you can upload it to Itch.io or Game Jolt to reach a bigger audience.
Itch.io focuses on all things indie gaming- hosting game jams, VR games, and even game engines & resources. However, although you have a lot of freedom with what you upload to Itch.io, so does everyone else. It’s very easy for your game to be lost in the sea of other titles being uploaded every second.
Game Jolt focuses more on browser games, but download-only titles are accepted as well. The VN market on Game Jolt is vastly different from Itch.io, in that Itch.io has a VN market! There are very few VNs on Game Jolt, but there aren’t many people searching for VNs on Game Jolt. So, don’t get disappointed if your download-only VN only gets an abysmal 12 views on Game Jolt.
Keep in mind that browser games do exceptionally better on any game website than download-only games.